Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Treat Your Palate in Mendoza

That subtle sound of two-year old Malbec red wine hitting the glass as the tour guide poured enough for our long awaited wine tasting was so inviting that my girlfriend Dani and I were like two kids in a candy store. Our very first wine tasting brought us a smile and a Salud. Clink went the glasses and the smooth red wine glistened across our palate. Next, a sample of their Cabernet Sauvignon... pour, SNIFF, swirl, SNIFF, and again let it treat the palate. Leaving our first vineyard (Bodega y Cavas de Weinert), both Dani and I carried with us a satisfaction for our first wine tasting/tour, yet an eagerness to see and taste more.

We had looked forward to our Mendoza retreat since I received the great news she was coming to visit me. Mendoza is a smaller city that is a 14 hour bus ride due west of Buenos Aires. It sits at the eastern base of the Andes mountain range and is a very popular base for climbers from all over the world who attempt to summit Mt. Aconcagua, highest peak in Western Hemisphere. However, Mendoza is most well-known for its quality wine. What we didn't know was the quantity of quality wine they had, roughly 1200 vineyards/bodegas. Imagine for a second, Dani and I were only able to visit two bodegas which took about half a day, with an olive farm visit in between. You would have to visit 3-4 vineyards/day for a whole year to experience all of the wine that comes from Mendoza, at top ten wine capital of the world. In addition, this was the first wine tasting experience for both Danielle and I, so we let the wine take us in and make us feel warm as we retreated to feeling like little kids in a gigantic candy store.

Our next stop on the tour would leave us testing our patience for more vino as we pulled into an olive farm to see how olive oil is made along with tasting some of the region's finest fresh olives. I had never been much of an olive fan until I moved to Argentina and was forced against my will to try them, now I think of myself as the olive connoisseur. The powerful odor of olives greeted us upon arrival, which pre-Argentina would have made me gag but now had me salivating. We took a very brief tour to see how they converted olives into olive oil using a compression machine. The tour ended with my purchase of two big jars of olives, straight from the source. We also happened to meet another couple who were our age from San Diego (UCSD) who happened to be travelling South America together. Dani and the other girl knew a mutual friend.. (see Six Degrees of Separation post).Our departure from olive heaven meant we were going to our final vineyard, a small family winery that maintains a low profile and only specializes in red wines (vino tinto). Sounds like my kind of place. Cavas de Don Arturo was a very cute little family-operated bodega and the tour was much more intimate than other wine tours. One of the nieces, who happened to speak very good English, gave us a great tour and let us sample three of their four vinos (Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah). The Merlot was supposedly their strongest wine, so undoubtedly I bought a bottle of their Merlot before leaving our last bodega of the tour.

(Dani and I praising Goddess of Wine) (Dani standing at hut entrance to best carne empanadas!)

Just when we thought our tour was over, our bus stopped in front of a cathedral, supposedly the first built in Mendoza. Dani and I took a quick gander but quickly escaped this part of the tour to go across the street to a little hut that had a huge fireplace. Our curiosity led us inside, fortunately, where the aroma of freshly made empanadas warmly welcomed us. First we bought two empanadas each, wow we underestimated the appetite all of that wine gave us. "Dos mas por favor," mmmm. At first I thought it was our appetite, then I realized what was really happening. We were consuming the best carne empanadas I've had in Argentina. By the end, Dani had 3 and I had indulged in 4 of them, yummers.

Something about Mendoza really grabs your taste buds, it's really hard to explain. Our appetite re-gathered itself and sent us to a great restaurant that had been previously recommended called El Palenque. Wow, one of the best dinners I've had in Argentina... just one more treat for the palate to add to the tick marks in Mendoza. If you love meat and you are lucky enough to find yourself in the wine capital of South America, clean your palate with any kind of the carne on the menu. But that's not it, what seemed to make all of our meals so delicous was this honey mustard sauce that was served with it all.. just ask for '... a la mostaza.' Every meal that we consumed seemed to be the best meal I've had in Argentina. The food in Buenos Aires doesn't even compare. The Mendocinos truly know how to clean the palate to fully compliment their abundance of fine vino.

Dani and I felt it was all too good to be true so we wanted to just test one more place to 'treat the palate' on our final day. There's no better way to treat the taste buds one last time in Mendocino fashion than where else?.. A chocolate factory!! It provided the proverbial icing on the cake that was the exclamation point to our yummy Mendoza experience. Historias y Sabores is a small little shop on the outskirts of Mendoza that makes their own chocolate, licors in assorted flavors such as banana chocolate, mint chocolate and dulce de leche among many other heart-warming snacks. Not surprisingly, Dani and I found ourselves once again like kids in the candy store. We wanted a sample of everything but we cut ourselves off after several samples to avoid the over-indulgence stereotype of North Americans. However, we did leave with enough chocolate, licors and absinthe to let our friends in Buenos Aires witness how sweet Mendoza is.
Needless to say, Dani and I rode the 14-hour bus ride back to Buenos Aires with our taste buds satisfied and our tummies full of Mendocino yum yum. All in all, Mendoza was a great reminder that fresh air really does exist, Buenos Aires pollution was turning me into a non-believer of good air.. ironically enough. I thank Dani for being such a fun and outstanding travel companion and an even more outstanding girlfriend. For those of you who have never been wine tasting, you should try it, I promise it will be a worthy experience. What I can't promise is that it will be as SWEET as Mendoza!

(Sunset leaving Mendoza)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Olympic Love

Every four years, that´s it. I like to think of these two and a half weeks as a time that all nations can participate in competition without the use of arms or ¨weapons of mass destruction.¨ I didn´t have the pleasure of seeing the Opening Ceremony which is usually my favorite, just seeing all of the nations´athletes carrying their respective flag and carrying that giddy feeling which makes all of their hard work paid off at least in part. Obviously the Gold is the objective for these athletes but even to come together and share their like-minded passion is just as amazing in my eyes. I like how all of the athletes are able to visit each other in their Olympic villages and communicate about how they idolize each other or whatever, with language barrier and all. My favorite example was Kobe Bryant visiting Argentina´s Olympic Village to take pictures and show his respect to the Argentine futbol team, not to be confused with the basketball team.

Perhaps, the largest story of this Olympics has been about that one kid from Baltimore, Maryland, Michael Phelps, who should be portrayed as the next Aquaman for winning 8 Gold Medals. In doing so he immediately doubled or tripled his self-worth from sponsorships and could potentially accumulate $100 million worth in the next sevaral years, according to his agent.
Another thing that tickles my fancy about the Olympics is how the media keeps track of the medal count so closely as if it is a reflection of each country´s well-being. No kidding China has 46 Gold Medals, they start training these young athletes before they even reach 5 years old. Imagine being a young toddler and all you know growing up is one sport, day in and day out. You´re given one objective in life, to win Olympic Gold in your sport. Being the most populated country in the world and having that pool to cherry pick young athletes to train their whole lives away for this one objective, sounds like a formula for success in acheiving Olympic Gold if you ask me.

Many people ask me from back home what the Olympic coverage is like here in Argentina. First of all, I don´t have a television where I live so I read all of my news online which are highly U.S. based news companies anyways. The only actual competition I´ve seen on the television screens here have been the Argentine futbol, basketball and women´s field hockey teams. All other results have been delivered to me by (olympic section). All I know is that it seems like hundreds of records were broken in the 2008 Beijing games. Twenty-four records were broken alone in Swimming, supposedly much of this due to Speedo´s newest line of swim wear. Usain Bolt from Jamaica has lived up to his name and bolted past two world records in track and field. The majority of the publicity goes to track and field, swimming, soccer, U.S. men´s basketball (Redeem team) and of course that aquaman, Phelps. Personally, I would like to know more about all of the other sports in the Olympics; wrestling (personal favorite since I competed my whole life), judo, handball, fencing, etc. I await the year that these sports are showed some love by publicity as well. Something that I thought was most special was when I heard that Afghanistan won its first medal. That to me is more special than China´s triumphant 46 Gold Medals or even Phelps´8. In the midst of a war-torn country, an athlete can deliver some relief in Olympic form.

In conclusion, I´d like to give my own rundown and prediction on the game everyone in the basketball world is talking about USA vs. Argentina. Since I´m a fan of Argentine futbol, I can´t support their basketball team also, that would be overkill. Some friends have asked if I´m going for Argentina... heck no!! I think this USA basketball team has proven they´re ready to win Gold again at the level they´ve been playing. All of the Argentines I´ve spoken with claim ¨We´re still the Champions.¨ Well I can´t respond to that... yet, I hope the US absolutely destroys Argentina on the hardwood since they can´t on the grass. I´m looking for a 15-20 point win by the US team. Now, let´s see if my words jinxed the U.S. team.

Congratulations to all of the athletes who graciously represented their country for their love of the sport.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

One Escape... A Little Footie!!

I've been intending on writing a post about futbol, or soccer as its known in the United States. A conversation I had with one of my students spurred me to finally write about the world's most popular sport. Rodrigo and I were talking about living one's lifetime in Latin American countries such as Argentina. He briefly explained how playing futbol is the greatest escape to living in times of political or economic uncertainty or instability. Many of the people here and around the world have grown up playing futbol since they were able to walk. Ahhh, it all makes sense, thus the explanation to why I'm being crossed-up left and right on the field. For those unfamiliar with futbol lingo, being crossed-up refers to being beat or being "schooled." It happens to the best and worst of us. (Note: futbol is an international sport and I'm not directly correlating it to 3rd world countries).

The most experience I had with the sport was as an eight-year old playing in a little summer soccer league, essentially a way to get me out of the house and run around. To be completely honest the most I remember about my infant soccer career was how much I looked forward to halftime for the orange slices, the next Pele right? Since that time in my life until my arrival in Buenos Aires, I had completely lost appreciation for the sport. Then I stepped into my first pick-up game here and immediately began kicking myself, figuratively and literally.. eeehhh. I'm decently athletic as I played three sports in high school and love to play any sport in time when the opportunity has arisen since. However, I do enjoy the challenge of being the worst to step on the field.
Now it's been nearly three or four months since Mike and I have begun our ''out of retirement'' futbol career. When we step on the field now, we're about the middle of the pack in talent, feels good to actually out play someone else on the field... anyone else. Though I must be honest and tell you a little secret, those who I usually out play are other yankees. I've yet to step up the game to an international level, so to speak. Rodrigo was speaking some truth. For that one hour of competition nothing else matters but staying afloat on skill level against players from Brazil, Ireland, England, Argentina, France, Germany and Norway. It's become a weekly affair as Mike is the only one gracious enough to organize the games, thanks Mikey! Just that thrill of competition, even simple pick-up games, truly does provide a quick escape.

What's also very interesting to observe is the difference in styles between players from different countries. These are my short-lived observations: Brazilian players have style and are very flashy; English players play good defense and are intense; Argentines are very good passers and maintain possession a lot even if it doesn't result in a goal; and the beloved yankees play like its basketball without hands, however, usually lack much effectiveness to their style... like myself :).

Of course, there are exceptions, our friend Camara from Washington D.C. is one of the best forwards on the field. The best all-around player would be Marcelo, Argentine, who is that guy who makes everyone else better on the team. He's like the Michael Jordan of Argentine pick-up footie... and I, I'd like to say Scottie Pippen of the field but I think I'm still fighting my way out of "waterboy" status. What does your status matter when you're escaping the madness of everyday life anyways?
Below are two pics of just some of the guys we play with:

Left to right clockwise: Josh (England), Keeger (Ireland), Camara (Wash D.C.), Mischa (England), Etienne (Germany), myself, Marcelo (Argentina), Dave (England), Mikey (San Diego, CA).